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Sunday, Dec. 24, 2006

Japan plays weak hand, may seek more sanctions


Staff writer

The lack of progress in the six-party talks on North Korea's nuclear weapons underscores Japan's growing difficulties in trying to defuse the crisis and resolve the abduction issue.

The frustration has prompted some high-ranking Japanese officials to even question the worth of the six-party talks. They're now beginning to discuss the possibility of seeking further economic sanctions against North Korea outside the talks' framework.

"I think there is no choice but to take tougher measures," said a senior Foreign Ministry official.

Specifically, one option would be to bring the North Korean issue again to the United Nations Security Council to seek further sanctions, the official said.

However, China and South Korea can put a damper on applying more pressure on the North, the official pointed out.

China, a permanent member of the Security Council, can veto any proposed U.N. resolution.

"The key is China. As long as they are not serious (about putting pressure on the North), no sanctions will work," the official said, speaking on the customary condition of anonymity.

Throughout the five days of negotiations in Beijing, North Korea had numerous bilateral meetings with all of the participants except Japan, leaving Tokyo few opportunities to demonstrate its presence in the much-awaited round.

Pyongyang apparently tried to isolate Japan, which has taken the hardest stance against the North and got the U.N. Security Council to adopt a resolution calling for economic sanctions in response to the Oct. 9 nuclear bomb test.

Japan has also maintained its policy not to give any substantial assistance to the North until issues related to the abductions of Japanese nationals as well as the nuclear and missile issues are resolved -- the toughest preconditions for reconciliation among the five countries pressing the North to abandon its nuclear weapons program.

"The North won't try to talk to Japan. There aren't any merits in it for them," the senior Foreign Ministry official said.

Japan's main source of diplomatic leverage, if it has any, is the economic assistance it could extend. But Tokyo would only do so after all issues between the two countries are settled.

Despite its apparent food and energy shortages, the leadership in Pyongyang does not appear to be in urgent need of Japanese aid, as China and South Korea have continued to provide assistance to the North.

North Korea reportedly gets 90 percent of its crude oil from China, which has kept shipping oil despite the international economic sanctions based on the U.N. resolution drafted by Japan.

"In North Korea, you can't pump even a drop of oil. China has the power of life or death over North Korea," said Toshio Miyazuka, a professor at Yamanashi Gakuin University and a well-known Korea expert.

Beijing wants to maintain North Korea as a geographical buffer to keep U.S. and Japanese influence at a distance, Miyazuka said.

Foreign Ministry officials also said that Beijing probably fears the political chaos that would likely follow a collapse of the Kim Jong Il regime.

About 2 million ethnic Koreans are estimated living in China, mainly in Jilin Province and other areas on the border with the North. The collapse of North Korea would trigger a flood of refugees and destabilize the Communist Party's control in the region, they said.

With China a reluctant host of the six-party talks, the focus of the negotiations now shifts to the financial sanctions issue between the United States and North Korea.

Financial authorities from the two countries are set to meet in New York in January, as the North has kept insisting that the financial sanctions must be lifted before it will discuss nuclear disarmament.

Not much time may be left for the survival of the framework of the six-party talks. Despite starting the framework in August 2003, the talks have yielded no tangible results in stopping North Korea from continuing its nuclear arms program.

Sean McCormack, U.S. State Department spokesman, indicated Thursday that Washington may seek measures outside the six-party talks, just as the Foreign Ministry official cited as an option for Japan.

"Sticking to principle in the course of the six-party talks' negotiations will ultimately, we hope, yield a result," McCormack said in Washington.

"If it does not, then of course we have to reassess that particular diplomatic track."



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